King of the Fairies, Knockma Hill, and Haunted Castle Hackett
I’ve waited my entire life to visit Ireland, and recently I had the absolute pleasure of finally going. I knew I would experience a feeling of being home, an undeniable connection I’ve always felt for my ancestors’ homeland. And I was also hoping to visit places connected to the good folk, as they’re called in Ireland. If you’ve never heard of the good folk, a term you’re probably familiar with is fairy. Well, not only did I visit a legitimate fairy forest, but I came across the home of the King of the Fairies in Galway. Read on to hear my true life fairy tale and discover why you should put Knockma Hill and Castle Hackett on your travel list!
First, Who is the King of the Fairies?
The King of the Fairies of Connacht, as he’s known in Galway, is also known by his name Finvarra (Finn Bheara). He appears in numerous Irish tales and legends, namely in the Fenian Cycle in early Irish literature and in the The Feast of the House of Conán circa the fifteenth century.
Fionnbharr of the Fenian Cycle is believed to be the same mythical figure as the King of the Fairies of Connacht, yet some scholars believe they could be separate. Finvarra, according to Edain McCoy’s A Witch’s Guide to Faery Folk, is one of the Tuatha de Danann. If you don’t already know, the Tuatha de Danann are a race of ancient gods that inhabited the Emerald Isle before the Milesians invaded. They have since also been called the “good folk” and are considered a race of fairies, by some. Finvarra is a King of the Tuatha and is known to “enjoy the games of Hurling and chess and has his favorite human opponents.”
King Finvarra Kidnaps a Bride
Apparently this King of the Fairies has no quams with humans and enjoys their company. Particularly pretty young women. In one Knockma Hill tale, Finvarra steals a human bride named Ethna for his lover. The lord from which she’s been taken hunts down her whereabouts and is told to dig down into Knockma Hill to find his new bride. So he does just that and then spreads salt over the earth. His bride is returned to him. Once he has Ethna in his possession, he notices she’s enspelled…singing to herself, never speaking, sleeping a lot, and generally in a daze. According to the Library Ireland, the spell is broken when a fairy girdle is removed from her waist and thrown into the fire.
They say you can still see the place where the lord dug to recover his enchanted bride on Knockma Hill. But I promise you, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Once you are there, things are rather hazy…almost like there’s an enchantment over the entire wood that keeps one from locating a doorway to King Finvarra’s world.
The King of the Fairies is also King of the Dead?
I want to bring up a theory of mine that I’m currently researching for a future book. And that is that the elves and fairies are actually the dead. Our ancestors. Why am I bringing this up in relation to the King of the Fairies of Connacht? Well, they also say Finvarra is the King of the Dead. And, as there are ancient mesolithic tombs and people buried on Knockma Hill, the correlation is too much to ignore. We see ancient burial tombs and cairns all over the ancient world, particularly in Celtic and Norse regions, that are also said to be elven and fairy haunts. And the fact that the fairies in Ireland reside in the hills and mounds, as do the dead, I believe says it all.
What and Where is Knockma Hill and Wood?
Knockma Hill, also known as Knockma Wood, is a small preserved forest in County Galway in Ireland. It’s located in the town of Belclare, but most people know the area because of the larger town called Tuam. Though both Belclare and Tuam are small compared to big cities like Dublin. This ancient hill has a long history of being inhabited by early humans in Ireland (circa 7000 BCE according to archaeological finds), and is also incredibly rich in local fairy folklore. Interestingly, the sign at the trail says it is actually part of Caherlistrane, Co. Galway. You will find it on the GPS and Google Maps by simply looking up Knockma Hill in Galway, or by coordinates 53.4841° N, 8.9664° W.
Knockma Hill has been used for ceremonial purposes and burials for thousands of years. As early as 7000 BCE. And there are supposedly burial chambers and tunnels within the hill itself. Though these seem to be completely hidden or buried under earth and rock in modernity. There are four larger confirmed cairns, which mark ancient burial sites, on top of the hill that can be seen today. Two burial chambers and the remnants of a hill fort were also recently discovered by archaeologists Nora Brennan and Michael Gibbons, according to the Irish Times. Brennan and Gibbons claim this site is as important to Ireland’s history as Newgrange.
The Otherworldly Hike around Knockma
Knockma Hill is heavily forested and there are hiking trails encircling it. In fact, there is one large easy trail labeled on the map as Green (the Forest trail), which makes a circle around the hill and back down it. In addition, there’s a blue trail and a red trail. The blue trail is labeled as Finvarra’s trail and the red as Queen Medb’s. This is because the blue supposedly leads to Finvarra’s castle and the red to Queen Medb’s cairn at the top of Knockma Hill. As you enter the forest trails, specifically the beginning of the Green trail, you’ll notice a sign that says Coill Chnoc Mea, Knockma Wood.
Before we even entered Knockma Wood, we could feel the earth around us pulsing and radiating. The otherworldly energy literally rose up from the ground and swirled around us in neverending spirals of wind, leaves, and sheep’s brays. Like most of Ireland, a sheep and dairy farm lie at the base of Knockma Hill. These sacred creatures by no means take away from the faery vibes of the forest. As we entered the forest and began climbing the Forest trail, we noticed moss-covered trees, abundant ferns, and a cool breeze. A large expanse of oak, beech, maples and other trees I couldn’t identify blanketed the blue sky.
There were other people hiking and enjoying the beautiful preserve with their friends and family members, but that also didn’t take away from the experience. I ate up every single moment of the hike, but I had one major mission – to find Queen Maeve’s Cairn and Finvarra’s Castle. We would have to take the higher climb, the more moderate trails, in order to find them.
Queen Maeve’s Cairn, Finvarra’s Castle, and David’s Bed
After an exhilarating (though somewhat challenging) climb up the hill, we reached a clearing where the trees faded away and allowed us to see one of the most gorgeous views I’ve ever witnessed. They say on top of Knockma Hill, you can see nearly all of Galway. And I would believe that. Take a look at the photos and you’ll see, but truly the photos didn’t even do it justice. Not far past the lookout area, we discovered a fork in the trail where we could either continue on the Green trail or take the Blue trail to Finvarra’s Castle and the Cairns. We immediately turned right and headed up the trail in search of the King of the Fairies and Queen Medb (speaking of Queen Medb, if you’d like to learn more about her, click here).
The further you climb up to the top of Knockma Hill, the rockier and wilder it gets. Plants with thorny stems seem to cover the rocky outcroppings, and when I noticed these I remembered the late Edain McCoy saying where there are thorny and spiny plants there are malevolent fairies. Further, we approached Queen Medb’s hill and cairn with caution and with respect. We came to the very top of the red trail (which branches off the blue) to find a park bench situated in front of a stone wall, of sorts. We figured this must be Queen Medb’s cairn. But there were no signs and we didn’t feel it would be welcome to climb on top of the stone wall or piles. I felt a strong amount of energy emanating from this place. We attempted to walk up a stone pile but didn’t go very far, again out of respect for those buried there and for the Queen herself.
The First Rule of Fairy Club…You Don’t Talk About Fairy Club
Further down the trail, we ran into a lovely elderly couple. I asked them about the stone walls and houses and the woman said, “oh you know there were people that once lived up here.” And the elderly man said, “there’s a man buried on top of Knockma Hill.” I found it interesting how they refrained from mentioning King Finvarra, fairies, or Queen Medb. I’ve been told the Irish people today don’t like talking about the wee folk. We walked further and came across what appeared to be remnants of small stone houses. We assume this is what is referred to as Finvarra’s Castle, but again…there were no signs or markers telling us.
Walking onward and returning to the forest, we came across another ruined stone house with a sign in front. I couldn’t read the Gaelic words at the time but came home and translated them. It says “David’s bed”. I wonder who is David and why is his name associated with this ruined stone cottage? The energy there was palpable…And directly behind David’s bed is a ridge with hauntingly beautiful trees. And a path that runs next to a large stone wall that has since been overtaken by moss. You can’t even tell their stone unless you walk right up to them. In addition to this finding, there are newly carved and cleverly placed wooden carvings done by a local woodworker/artist. They are of local animals like the badger, fox, and owl, and some are fun fairy homes. Someone had also made a large natural mandala at the base of David’s bed that we admired for quite some time.
Fairies Haunt Castle Hackett
It’s not just Knockma Hill and wood that will capture your soul and imagination. It’s the captivating ruined towerhouse at the base of the hill known as Castle Hackett. Castle Hackett was built sometime in the thirteenth century by a Norman family called the Hacketts. The Kirwans took over the castle in the fifteenth century and intermarried with the Hacketts. The Castle towerhouse was abandoned in the eighteenth century and lies in ruin today. There’s a large chunk missing out of one of the walls (at least) and no roof. And it is covered in foliage. While in ruin, it is a breathtaking site to see.
According to WB Yeats, the Hacketts claimed to be descendants of a fairy. And I wonder if they claim any relation to King Finvarra, but I couldn’t find a solid resouce to back that up. The Hacketts were known to have the “sight” and had dealings with the fairies on Knockma Hill. It’s no wonder, since the Castle is situated within feet of the fairy forest. Local legends say King Finvarra and his fairies haunt the ruined towerhouse today. And the locals also say you can see the fairies waging war in the sky above Knockma Hill. This was a sight many locals bore witness to during the Great Potato Famine.
Castlehackett Manor House: Its History, Fairies, and Staying There Today
After Castle Hackett was abandoned in the eighteenth century, the family built a large manor house with three stories nearby in 1703. It is called Castlehackett House and still stands today. In fact, it’s been converted into a lovely Bed and Breakfast and you can book a room or suite there through Airbnb. The history attached to the Manor House is also a tumultous and interesting one. John Kirwan, the man who built the house, was said to have been haunted by the fairies of Knockma. One story goes that John was preparing his horse for a race in Galway, when a little man walked down from Knockma Hill and approached him at the stable. He told John that if he allowed the little people to ride his horse for him in Galway the next day, that he would surely win the race. John agreed and, sure enough, one of the little people showed up in Galway for everyone to see, rode John’s horse, and won the race.
In 1923, it was bombed during the Civil War, and the third level was destroyed. Then it was rebuilt in 1929 with two stories remaining. It is a charming and peaceful place to stay, and I highly recommend it! Plus the owner Joyce McDonagh makes a mean Irish breakfast. We found it fascinating that the “Do’s and Dont’s” of listed in our suite states “Don’t be afraid of ghosts…only good spirits reside here!” While we stayed at Castlehackett House, we experienced nothing spooky whatsoever. I truly believe Joyce is right…if there are spirits there, they are benevolent. If you decide to visit, bring warm pajamas as it does get cold at night. And be sure to walk around the property and enjoy the view of Knockma Hill nearby. And…don’t let yourself be taken by the King of the Fairies.
Read about the haunted Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, Ireland here and our experiences in the crypts in our second installment of in the Ireland witchy travel series. And the ruined Clonmacnoise Monastery that’s seen its fair share of fairies, phantoms, angels, and UFOs!
More Resources on Fairies:
- Follow Us on Instagram for Upcoming Fairy Reels
- Fairy Foods: What do fairies eat?
- Kelpies: Mystical Celtic Water Horse